During the week of September 12th, the Santa Monica High School Mortensen library hosted a series of lectures and discussions on Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome in connection with the school wide summer reading book, the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime by Mark Haddon, which has an adolescent, autistic narrator.
The speakers represented a broad range of professions, from a psychologist to a legal advocate to a behavioral interventionist. Besides working with autistic children in their official capacities, the majority of the speakers were parents of children with special needs. Their shared goal in speaking at Samohi was to raise the student body’s awareness of and sensitivity to the Autism spectrum.
“We don’t want you to guys to meet an autistic person and be afraid of them,” said speaker Gil Murillo. “We want you to be aware of why they do the things they do, so you can help them feel more included.”
Modeled after “City Reads” programs all over the country, Samohi’s English department has a “One Book, One School” program every summer, in which every student on campus, regardless of grade level, reads the same book.
The lectures were arranged by a committee of English teachers who met over this past summer to discuss ways to make the “One School, One Book” choice come alive for students of all ages once the school year began.
Heading this committee was Meredith Louria, who has taught at Samohi for 12 years. “We chose this book because it’s accessible,” said Louria. “Students reading it on their own during the summer can understand and enjoy it. At the same time, there are important issues to discuss during class time once school starts. It also starts off the year by talking about tolerance, diversity and acceptance, concepts we want to emphasize at Samohi.”
Sari Pill, a behavioral interventionist for Westwood based FACT (Focus on All Child Therapies), stressed the merits of the summer book choice: “This book is so perfect, so human, so touching. Chris [the protagonist] deals with normal teenage issues like math tests, fighting parents etc, but all through his own filter of problems. Besides that, it’s an incredibly accurate portrayal of Autism.”
Pill has a very clear idea of the facets of Autism, as she has three special needs children of her own and interacts with countless others in her work life, but she knows that such understanding is rare. She explained Autism, not in cold, medical terms, but in terms that she knew high school students would understand. For example, she explained sensory integration, the difficulty an autistic person has in processing too many sensations: “Think of the worst day of your life. You wake up and the light is too bright in your room. You put on clothes that feel itchy and too small. You go to school and try to take a test, but there’s tons of noise right outside the window. Your lunch is weird and horrible. You go home and your parents are screaming at each other. There’s a million things you have to do and no time to do it. This is just a regular day for someone with Autism.”
Asked if it was difficult to gather a week’s worth of speakers, Louria replied with an emphatic no: “All the speakers, especially the parents of special needs children, were eager for a chance to educate high school kids about this issue. They willingly gave up their time to come.”
Speaker Dr. Sandra Kaler commented on the importance of speaking at Samohi: “There are so many autistic kids in every public school, and their happiness depends on how other children treat them.”
The student audiences were, for the most part, respectful and curious. Their questions – such as, “How does your autistic son go surfing if he has sensory integration problems”– clearly showed that they were listening and thinking.
“The presentation was really informative,” said junior Chachi Rosa. “A lot of kids didn’t read the book, so they at least learned a lot from the speakers, who did a good job at grabbing people’s attention.”
One aim of the lectures was to demonstrate that behind the problems, underneath the idiosyncrasies, autistic people are just like everyone else, and deserve to be treated with the same respect. “We all have strengths and weaknesses,” said speaker Dr. Sandra Kaler. “Parallel parking is hard for me. Understanding facial expressions is hard for kids with Autism.”
Samohi librarian Dana Bart-Bell added, “We can’t separate ourselves into “us” and ‘them,’ ‘normal’ and ‘different.’ ” But the book’s narrator stated it best of all: “Everyone has learning difficulties because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult and also everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop himself from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobhan, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache if you borrow them, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs.”Editors note: Meredith Louria is the authors mother.